DENVER (CBS4) – You may have never flown to Worland, Wyoming, or McCook, Nebraska, or Liberal, Kansas, but taxpayers are paying a lot of money for other people to take those flights. A CBS4 investigation found many of those taxpayer subsidized flights are flown with very few people on board.

The flights are part of a $261 million federal program called Essential Air Service where taxpayers help pay for flights to and from small airports across the country. The goal of the program is to ensure the airlines continue to fly to remote communities that might not otherwise have air service.

Twenty-two of the 116 federally subsidized routes feed into Denver International Airport, including flights from Alamosa, Cortez and Pueblo in Colorado.

The federal government pays SkyWest $1.7 million per year to help operate twice daily flights between Pueblo and Denver. In March, CBS4 Investigator Brian Maass took the 24-minute flight from Pueblo to Denver and found only seven other passengers on board the 50-seat jet.

A flight with few passengers from Pueblo to Denver (credit: CBS)

A flight with few passengers from Pueblo to Denver (credit: CBS)

Travelers told CBS4 there were “plenty of empty seats” on the flight providing passengers with “lots of leg room.” Others said Pueblo was like a “boutique airport” and “almost like flying private.” Airline workers told CBS4 the flight is rarely half full.

“I like having air service in Pueblo,” said Theresa Hamby from Canon City, who hopped the flight to Denver to take a connecting flight to visit her mother. “It’s an easier drive to get to this airport than Colorado Springs.”

The Colorado Springs Airport with flights to major destinations is just 44 miles away from Pueblo. Critics of Essential Air Service like California Congressman Tom McClintock argue a lot of the flights aren’t essential, especially with another major airport so close.

“When we are having to make cuts in essential programs to continue increasing the amount of money we are putting into this program is simply obscene,” said McClintock.

The Pueblo Memorial Airport (credit: CBS)

The Pueblo Memorial Airport (credit: CBS)

But Jack Rink with Pueblo’s Economic Development Corporation says the subsidized flights are a lifeline.

“It’s very important,” said Rink. “It’s one of the things that allows businesses to look at us as a viable alternative.”

He said air service is a “punch-list item” for businesses when they choose where to relocate.

Having air service in Pueblo provides another option for the people in Southern Colorado.

“We have a mix,” he explained. “People choose to fly out of Pueblo, some will drive to the Springs, some will drive to Denver.”

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

But critics say taxpayers should not spend millions every year to make it more convenient for a small number of passengers when there’s another big airport so close.

CBS4 found the flights to and from Pueblo weren’t the only subsidized flights that fly nearly empty. Government data shows on average last year, 44 of the 113 routes flew at least two-thirds empty.

The government pays $2.2 million for the route from McCook, Nebraska to DIA, which CBS4 spotted last month with just three passengers on board the 19 passenger plane. The same day CBS4 spotted a flight from Alamosa to Denver with just six people on board — a $2.1 million per year route.

They are convenient, nearly empty, and some critics say it’s time to ground some Essential Air Service routes.

– By Brian Maass and Mark Ackerman

CBS4 Investigator Brian Maass has been with the station more than 30 years uncovering waste, fraud and corruption. Follow him on Twitter @Briancbs4.

Mark Ackerman is a Special Projects Producer at CBS4. Follow him on Twitter @ackermanmark

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